Cemetery bankruptcy
draws fire

A group opposes the proposed
demolition of niches for urns

By Leila Fujimori

A group meets tonight to come up with a way to block a bankruptcy reorganization plan that includes demolishing a Nuuanu cemetery's deteriorating pagoda, which houses hundreds of niches for urns.

Wayne Kotomori, organizer of the group of niche and plot owners, also alleges Honolulu Memorial Park owners have acted unethically and have engaged in illegal activities by operating the cemetery for several years without a license.

If Bankruptcy Judge Robert Faris approves the plan for Honolulu Memorial Park on Feb. 18, the pagoda with 1,765 niches would be demolished.

The cemetery sold 1,267 pagoda niches and has 550 unoccupied niches in its temple and garden. About 96 urns are interred in the pagoda.

No matter how many niches were purchased in the pagoda, under the plan, each pagoda niche purchaser would receive one niche in the cemetery's temple or garden, said Jerrold Guben, attorney for Honolulu Memorial Park. That means people who bought multiple niches would receive only one niche.

A bankruptcy reorganization plan includes demolishing the deteriorating pagoda at Honolulu Memorial Park in Nuuanu.

"You're going to have 717 people out in the cold, people in their 70s, 80s and 90s with nowhere to go," said Kotomori.

The group meets at 6 p.m. today at Kawananakoa Middle School. The deadline for submitting objections and ballots to vote on the plan to Guben is Tuesday. Honolulu Memorial Park filed for bankruptcy reorganization on Dec. 20, 2001.

Kotomori said the cemetery owners ran the pagoda into the ground by failing to make repairs on a minor leak in the roof in 1978. Instead, they placed a sheet of plastic and buckets under the leak, he said.

Kotomori's father, who died Dec. 5, had purchased four temple niches and four plots.

The pagoda's aesthetic value was the main reason his father and many others bought into the cemetery, he said. "You take away the pagoda and you just have a piece of property," he said.

Guben said the pagoda's renovation could cost up to $2.5 million compared with $200,000 to demolish, and it is accruing a $50 daily fine by the city for safety issues. Shareholders chose to reorganize and eliminate the pagoda issue.

Guben said the bankruptcy has nothing to do with the maintenance of the pagoda or the park.

Niche and plot buyers paid one-time maintenance fees, which went into a perpetual-care fund managed by the Honolulu Memorial Association but cannot be used until it reaches a level where it can generate enough income for maintenance.

The cemetery's license lapsed in December 1999. It operated without a license from Jan. 1, 1992, through September 1997.

The company and its officers and directors -- James Richards, Herbert Richards Jr. and George Manning Richards -- were slapped with a lawsuit in 1997 by the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs for charging plot buyers thousands of dollars extra for maintenance fees years after they were purchased, and operated without a license.

The defendants agreed in a stipulated judgment to pay $10,000 in penalties and not to assess perpetual-care fees to individuals named in the suit and to cease from performing cemetery work until a license is obtained.

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